Adam Blatner, M.D.

July 1, 2002

What does it mean to have a hero, or to be a hero to someone else? In the course of your life, do you participate in anything heroic? Does heroism need to require physical daring? Super-powers? I think the word has become distorted and diluted.

I want to suggest that the heroic reflects a process in which a person consciously chooses to move towards faith, love, responsibility, and other virtues in the face of the pull of opposite feelings or temptations. In this definition, you might be a little more heroic several times a day, and less heroic or distinctly non-heroic at other times. There may be larger series of events that require consistent discipline–not mere habit–and for which you deserve to consider yourself perhaps even more heroic.

Because life is complex, a person never achieves full establishment in "being" a "hero"–once and for all, it's all settled. Whatever the achievement, there are then other challenges that require a redoubling of the heroic activity, or shifting it to a different kind of heroism. Also, even while one is being heroic in one role, one is capable of being lazy, regressed, cowardly, shut down, or in other ways non-heroic in other roles being played at the same time.

Of course, one may be idealized–that is the activity in which one's virtues are over-estimated or over-generalized by someone else, perhaps for their own needs. One becomes "a" hero, an image. For a while, this may be useful for the person who idealizes, and indeed may be nice a bit for the person who is idealized. But it is necessarily a temporary activity and should not be retained, because it denies the actual complexity of the process.

On "Great-ness"

Was Alexander the Great so great? All the "-the Great" kings–were these folks really someone we want our sons to model themselves after? Most were pretty good strategists, perhaps with unusual stamina, charisma in leadership, but essentially warriors. The word "conqueror" suggests something more nobler than very powerful hoodlum and thief, but what is conquest, really?

What about Beethoven, the composer? I am willing to concede that he was great–but only insofar as his role as composer. As a person, according to most reports, he was more than just a difficult man–he could be distinctly unpleasant. In these roles he wasn't great.

So I think that when we recognize the complexity of life, of being a person, we see that people live many parallel roles, and among those considered great, only a few of those roles so qualify. Other roles are mediocre–indeed, in most roles, most people are mediocre!–and some roles are distinctly inferior!  The challenge in life is to find what's relatively talented, what one's strengths are, and develop these aspects, find roles for the expression of these gifts.

But greatness is more than mere talent. I reserve the term for the production of a body of work, or the living of a life, the study of which yields an almost un-ending source of new and useful insights, excitements, discoveries, and stimuli for others' creativity. When someone has achieved a breakthrough that is then this useful for others, then one has achieved greatness, as I think of it.

Well, an otherwise foolish or in some respects even a bit wicked of a person can in certain roles exhibit greatness. In such cases, it's best not to make the person into a hero, but rather to respect the work done, to grant that genius can exist even in rather problematical characters.

Most of us, though, don't achieve greatness; we do have parts of us that are more gifted and talented. As I note in another paper, we can all participate in the "genius process" to some degree, but it doesn't always end up being that unendingly useful to others.

This in a way has been a needed side-discussion of a related phenomenon. To return to the issue of the hero, and the point of this paper: You can develop and cultivate the heroic in your life, and you should learn to appreciate yourself for it to an appropriate degree. (I like to think that we should feel sorry for ourselves about 15%–not more, but not less–we need to cut ourselves a bit of slack; there is a certain appropriate level of self-forgiveness needed for self-acceptance and moving forward. Similarly, we need to recognize how excellent we are, maybe also around 15%–not so much as to be arrogant, but enough to encourage ourselves–literally ‘in(stilling) courage'–to go ahead and sing that song out loud, to put oneself forward for a job you think you can do, to try out that creative inspiration in whatever field of endeavor in which you feel inspired. We need this as-yet-unproven confidence to take the risks needed for abundant living. And the world needs you to take those risks!  It doesn't matter if it doesn't work. Most people's first efforts don't succeed. But yours just might. Or maybe your third or fifteenth attempt. Whatever. The world will be better for it.

Moving Towards the Light.

The psyche maintains a constant tension between parts of the mind that want to retreat, go back to bed, avoid challenge, escape the stresses of novelty and change, etc. Also, as Otto Rank pointed out, creativity entails a measure of guilt, because we recognize intuitively that any suggested change implies (1) that what others are doing may not be optimal; (2) something is likely to be lost, destroyed, reduced in priority, or in other ways discomfited if something else is to replace it–this is just the nature of the creative process. So, in order to avoid criticism, as a saying goes, say nothing; do nothing; be nothing.

Recognizing this regressive tendency is vital: It pervades life and existence. It is the true death instinct–not really full death, you understand–just relatively more dead than lively and engaged. It's possible to be medium asleep or half-dead and yet alive enough to be a full fledged couch-potato, parasite, creature of mere habit. The heroic challenge is to pull away from these tendencies, these temptations, these deep desires, and instead ally one's identity with the waking-up motivation, the life "eros" instinct, the attraction to get involved, engaged, to risk loving, to take responsibility, to plunge into faith. And it's heroic because there is that negative pull.

This definition, to restate, allows for minor heroism. Just doing great things because you're big and powerful, or small and quick, or whatever, isn't heroic. (Therefore, superhero isn't necessarily heroic, using this criterion. Some activities are "impressive" because of the amount of power involved–but if the person is very very strong, then it's not really heroic.)

Mixing categories, it is possible for a prodigiously talented person to spin out really great stuff (as I defined greatness) and yet not be heroic. Some of these folks jsut couldn't help it–they were channels, as it were, for Divine gifts. Perhaps some very gifted "idiot savants" also fit a similar category.) But for an activity to be heroic, there needs to be a taking on the challenge of working with the created material, even though one is tempted strongly to not do so, to give up, give in to laziness, avoid threatening the authorities, etc.

Everyday Heroism

 Simply speaking of maturity versus childishness doesn't capture the drama of what is involved: Maturity (as I think of the word) is more than merely the external behavior of an established full adult–that kind of (pseudo-)maturity may allow superficial manners, posturings, status behaviors, and the like seem wise, but it can just be a superficial screen to a rigid, habitual, narrow-minded, complacent fool. To move towards maturity (a never-ending goal, an "asymptotic limit," like the speed of light or perfection) involves a heroic series of relinquishments of illusions which support the active temptation towards regression, and to reach with the mind towards aspirations. Note the spir- in aspirations, the spirit, the noble ideal, the sense of meaning that goes beyond the personal ego.

Thus, the great deeds of a giant uprooting a tree is not particularly heroic, no more so than a volcano's power. Powerful things are powerful, compared to our human weakness, and that's just it. Nothing heroic about it. Ditto some things or people being naturally faster or even more skilled or talented.  It's the stretch, the discipline, the application, the intent, the deeper sense of engaging in the struggle that lends the tone of heroism to an action. Actions are not in themselves heroic-- it's the superimposition of a story-like meaning that confers this virtue. Thus, "A person is heroic when... "  When the action for that individual in that setting is a great stretch, that is part of the quality.

Another element in heroism is that it tends to inspire others, elicit a sense of admiration, nobility. We want to be reassured that even the frightened can be courageous, that even the cynical can break through to love-- that's why Dickens' Christmas Carol, the Scrooge story, is so touching. We want to be reminded that consistent responsibility is noble, especially in an era in which the impulse to rebel has become so romanticized that it blurs the heroism of the free spirit, the "King of the Road"  with the less worthy truly lazy bum, parasite, petty thief, one who has largely given up on life or any attempt to achieve...

Heroism and Celebrity

The problem with celebrity is that frequently there has been a blurring of the criteria for heroism. The mass media offer an easy access to images that are then subtly built up, expanded. This cultural-technological process speaks to the need to be impressed by people who can do (often artificially-built-up) seemingly amazing things. It appeals to the childish superhero complex, confusing virtue with mere power.

In contrast, I think we need to encourage talking about heroes as real people, not altogether different from you and I, who have shown how a bit of courage, faith, responsibility, love, a bit more giving, can work in the world.  And if they've done this behavior and evoked our admiration on many occasions, they begin to become our heroes.

Along with Ernest Becker, I agree that people need heroes–they need to see the heroic in others and from that, dimly perceive it in themselves. This re-working of the concept, though, makes it more possible to get clear on the essential dynamics, and from this, to more sharply perceive the heroic process in themselves. This psychological insight also fits with Heinz Kohut's "self psychology" approach in psychoanalysis introduced in the late 1970s, and more specifically, his theory that to develop a sense of self, kids need to have a relationship with significant others who can be both "mirrors," reflecting the child, and also ideals-- here's where the hero function comes in, almost archetypally.

So I'm getting a hint of an insight that we need people to be heroes as a personal ideal, something I personally can relate to my struggle, and I need it so much-- and there are so few models in fact in this postmodern world-- so few that are publicized that is, or, more commonly, our own quest has been so confused and layered over by having been told by culture (in the form of crass advertisements) who and what we are and should be, that we don't know any longer what a valid hero for our true self would be.  And celebrity functions psychologically in the same way that spectator sports, junk food, cocaine, etc.   It's something from the outside that gives us the illusion of participation, of feeling full, of being really alive, but in fact actually leaches out of us a portion of our own imagination, vitality, activity... so we become not only couch potatoes and addicts, but begin to lose the capacity to engage in our own imaginations and heroic strivings.  Then we need another hit of celebrity-- we need to "get a life," even if it is someone else's.

For comments, suggestions for revision, etc., feel free to email me.

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